Despite woes, ANC plans party to celebrate 100 years

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BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA More than 100,000 people are expected to attend celebrations this weekend in this normally sleepy town, where the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), was formed in a church hall 100 years ago Sunday.

Once banned by a minority-white government, the party has presided over South Africa since its venerable leader, Nelson Mandela, became the country’s first black president in 1994, democratically elected after decades of opposing the systematic racial discrimination known as apartheid.

But the centenary comes at a time when the ANC is divided over issues of power and policy, besmirched by corruption scandals and criticized for failing to lift the country’s black majority out of poverty.

South African President Jacob Zuma will greet and host VIPs, including 42 heads of state and government from around the world.

“They are coming to South Africa to congratulate, not just the ruling party, but all South Africans,” Mr. Zuma said this week, adding that the event falls in line with his party’s commitment to “reconciliation and nation-building.”

Ailing at 93, Mr. Mandela is not expected to attend any of the events. He has moved to his childhood home in the Eastern Cape, more than 500 miles south of Johannesburg, where he had been based since his release from prison in 1990.

More than 17 years after coming to power, the ANC still has much to achieve in this diverse nation of more than 49 million people. About 50 percent of the people live below the poverty line, and the overall unemployment rate stands at 25 percent but tops 50 percent among young people. South Africa’s crime rate is among the highest in the world.

Meanwhile, the ANC’s membership is divided between Mr. Zuma’s call for maintaining a free-market democracy and those calling for the nationalization of mines and private property without compensation, such as youth leader Julius Malema.

Mr. Malema, 31, has been suspended from the party for his verbal attacks on its leadership, including Mr. Zuma, 68. The youth leader will address young people at unofficial rallies during the festivities.

Polls by TNS Global Market Research, which conducts voter surveys in the U.S. and Europe, reveal limited support for Mr. Malema, even among black youths. However, the surveys show that poverty and unemployment are the two key issues among voters.

What’s more, the ANC in recent years has been plagued with scandal, including the misuse of parliamentary allowances and allegations that state tenders were awarded to ministers and their families.

An investigation is continuing in a $3.6 billion weapons deal to restock the South African defense force in which several figures close to Mr. Zuma are suspected to have taken kickbacks.

Nonetheless, the ANC is preparing a grand celebration, although Mr. Zuma has not explained how the festivities will be funded.

More than $1.2 million of taxpayer money has been used to buy the church where the party’s original meeting took place, and hundreds of police and soldiers have been brought in to secure the town.

By Thursday, accommodation and parking in Bloemfontein were in short supply. The town is not on the tourist route and has few claims to fame, aside from being the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

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